Publisher’s Note

By David McConnachie

A few years ago, I was having a humorous conversation with a friend who teased me that environmentalists (‘tree-huggers’ was the exact phrase) were so detached from their own humanity because they were obsessed with other things, like trees, whales and the like. I corrected him. “Au contraire, mon ami,” I stated as I shared that, based upon my laterday environmentalist status (a.k.a. keen neophyte) and long-time observations, environmentalists are the most self-interested people that you are likely to meet, dedicating their lives to studying the signs of change that will fundamentally mean negative things to them, not just for the species, flora and fauna that they study. The trees, the whales and the like are truly just ‘canaries in a coal mine’ to many of me and my greener friends, I joked, and we ‘tree-huggers’ study them to know when it’s time to get the heck out of the mine before we run out of breathable air. Sometimes you get a sense that there’s a growing detachment between a human being’s understanding of their intrinsic connection with nature and their lived lives. We pay attention to matters that don’t seem to matter – and avert our gaze and/or swipe left when faced with an unpleasant reminder that the clock is ticking and lives are at risk. Lives like ours, and like those species who are like us. And those species that are negatively affected by us and our ways. There have been mass extinction events in our planet’s history, but we’re in the midst of a slow-motion horror show that could be titled ANTHROPOGENIC MASS EXTINCTION – NOW THE SH*T GETS REAL.

And, like in many of our favourite horror/sci-fi series, there are heroes and villains. We know the villains, and we don’t need to spend any more time accommodating their selfishness. Let’s focus on the important characters in this story: the heroes. The heroes are the researchers working today (and who toiled in even greater anonymity in the years passed) to adapt, mitigate and respond to the unfurling impacts of unwise decisions we, as a species, have been making for what seems to be generations now. The heroes are the team members rolling up their sleeves, pushing through their own sadness and grief to try to save someone else’s favourite endangered species. The heroes are the people on this planet, especially our youngest citizens, who are volunteering, donating, learning and actively working towards saving just one more, just one more time. For Alternatives Journal, we’ve been admiring, cheering and doing our part to empower the heroes of the conservation movement. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, we are so very pleased (and a wee bit humbled) to be able to present this issue to our readership in collaboration with WWF-Canada, arguably the most impactful ‘act local’ office of the most impactful ‘think global’ conservation organization on the planet. The WWF has pioneered much of the conservation work and methodologies that are deployed today (and have been for years) on the various ‘front lines’ to protect species at risk. In Canada, A\J has shared many stories of WWF-Canada’s work from coast to coast to coast, and just about every space in between, from taiga to Toronto. In this issue, WWF-Canada worked with our editorial team to identify the most important stories to tell, helped connect us with top researchers, community leaders and advocates, and provided valuable information about species currently at risk (and what needs to be done to safeguard them). From “We Called Them ‘Penguin’” through to the Q&A with Monte Hummel, WWF-Canada was a true and equal partner in the work that you will find in the pages ahead. The science. The solutions. The people to make it happen. All these elements are present in ample abundance. As we, the human species, think about the ‘future of us’ as part of a complex ecosystem under threat from an anthropogenic climate crisis, it behooves us to get in touch with our own humanity as the most important step that we can take. From the products we buy to the candidates we vote for, from the ways that we spend our time to the causes that we support with our full and open hearts, you and I possess all the tools that any citizen can possess to be an ally to every species-at-risk on this planet. Ourselves included.

Letter from the Editor 

Written by Megan Leslie WWF-Canada President and CEO

Nothing in isolation. It’s a guiding philosophy for World Wildlife Fund Canada, but it’s not one we came up with on our own. We, of course, learned it from nature. 

An ecosystem — from rainforests and grasslands to kelp forests and watersheds — thrives through complex interactions between plants, animals, microorganisms, rock, soil, water, air, and weather. Nothing in an ecosystem exists in isolation, and for conservation to work, our actions must be similarly interconnected if we want there to be — as this issue of Alternatives Journal is themed — a Future of Us

Biodiversity loss and climate change — the dual crises currently threatening this future, are inextricable from one another. Human activities drive both, but they also feed each other. Habitat loss, for instance, puts wildlife at risk while reducing carbon absorption from the atmosphere. This, in turn, heats the planet, causing further habitat loss as wildfires rage, sea ice melts, heat waves and droughts spread, superstorms surge and the ocean acidifies. 

But that is just one potential future. It does not have to be ours. Because reversing nature loss can also reduce both crises.

Our vision for the future is a resilient one with abundant wildlife, expanded habitats and prosperous communities. A future where the threat of species extinction fades while ecosystems regenerate and nature returns to cities and suburbs. Where the risks of weather-related disasters are reduced, temperatures stabilize, industry pursues sustainable practices and climate anxiety loosens its grip on our youth, because they can finally see a future for themselves.

The question is: how do we get there? 

Well, we know that more nature provides more habitat, and stores more carbon. We know that one-third of the planet’s remaining intact wilderness is nestled between our three oceans, and how we steward these lands and waters will have a local, national and global impact. And we know that nature-based solutions, including protecting those carbon stores, can tackle the climate and biodiversity crises at the same time. But we still need to know where to best direct our efforts.

Siobhan Mullally digs into the science of carbon mapping, and a project WWF-Canada and McMaster University’s Remote Sensing Lab has just completed that aims to measure carbon sequestration in soil. Once we know where our largest carbon stocks are located, we can enact the most effective conservation policies to help us achieve climate targets while protecting the most at-risk species and stave off population declines.. 

One of the regions we’re mapping is Mushkegowuk, also known as the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands. It has a vast complex of peatlands containing an estimated billions of tonnes of stored carbon potentially under threat of being released by industrial activities in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire.

In this issue’s “Returning to Muskeg” cover story, Cree ethnobotanist Jazmin Pirozek takes us deeper into these peatlands by sharing personal, evocative experiences of herself and her grandfather. She reveals it as a place of food, fertility, culture and medicine — one that is still being colonized, with development threatening Indigenous identity as well as globally significant biodiversity and emissions targets. 

The story is a stark reminder that who stewards nature is a critical part of the equation. Indigenous-led conservation, the most effective and equitable means to safeguard our environment and progress reconciliation, is a future we should all be envisioning. 

Supporting Indigenous partners, knowledge and guidance is not only the right thing to do; it is also the best thing to do. As Melanie Ritchot writes in her look at the proposed Aviqtuuq Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area in Nunavut, a 2019 UBC-led study of Canada, Brazil and Australia found, unsurprisingly, the regions with the highest biodiversity are Indigenous-managed lands. 

Taking readers to Taloyoak, NU, the most northerly part of the continental mainland, Ritchot speaks to hunters and scientists about how an IPCA would improve food security and protect Inuit culture while safeguarding species, providing economic alternatives to resource extraction and helping the Canadian government meet its High Ambition Coalition commitment to protect 30 per cent of land and water by 2030.

Melting ice and the resulting ship traffic is one of the reasons why an Aviqtuuq IPCA, which would include both terrestrial and marine protections, is needed. Of course, shipping is a potential threat to wildlife regardless of latitude. Alexandra Scaman lays out the threats and solutions that would allow us to keep our economies moving while ensuring whales and other marine wildlife can continue to do the same.

Ultimately, identifying threats and solutions is what conservation is all about. Emma Bocking’s dive into Priority Threat Management efforts in New Brunswick’s Wolastoq watershed,  reveals how this new approach, developed by UBC researchers, balances threats and solutions to “conserve the most for the least” cost, as quickly as possible. 

Time is, after all, of the essence. Zack Metcalfe’s “We Called Them Penguins”  look at the East Coast’s Great Auk, extinct since the last breeding pair were killed in 1844, lays out what’s at stake if we don’t protect at-risk species. His study of the whooping crane, a species that had fallen to 14 individuals and is now “recovering with remarkable vigour,” shows what happens when we do.

These two species stories illustrate how the choices we make right now will determine which future we will see.  Admittedly, it can feel overwhelming. But an interview with one of my predecessors — WWF-Canada’s President Emeritus, Monte Hummel, who started in 1978 (when we only had three staff!) — was a good reminder that the past can serve as inspiration. He  reflects on four decades of conservation, how far we’ve come, and provided this simple, yet crucial, piece of advice: “We have to set out what needs to be done, and then have the confidence and ambition to do it.”

Yes, we have a long way to go and a lot more to do. But I hope that what you take away from these stories is that if we can work together — if we can act like an ecosystem — we can reverse nature loss, reduce climate change, restore biodiversity, and assure a bright future, for all of us.